Posted On: 09/24/19 8:13 AM

As an 8th grader Julia Salmen had the world by the tail. Until she didn’t. What followed over the next three years has been a long and painful journey – both physically and emotionally – that saw the Mahtomedi senior go through not one but two ACL injuries. Written off by many, forgotten by most, Salmen fought the urge to quit basketball forever. But now she’s back, having resurrected her career. She recently committed to play college basketball at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisc.

“It is a great relief, a load off my back,” Salmen said when we sat down over coffee for an extended conversation recently. “At one point I didn’t even know if I would ever come back to basketball. It’s really hard coming back from two ACLs because nobody knows who you are when you have been sitting out that long. I just kept working hard and training and doing everything that I could that was within my control. I ended up finding a college coach who believes in me. Instead of being scared by how many injuries I had, he valued that I had been able to come back. He saw it as a strength instead of a weakness.”

Julia Salmen has committed to Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisc.

The coach in question would be V-Hawks second-year head man Lionel Jones, a former Park Center and Woodbury boys coach who is attempting to turn around a program that has been losing forever. Salmen sent Jones some video last winter, he came to watch her at a tournament this summer, and the offer of an NAIA scholarship followed. Salmen earned every dollar of it and more and will pursue a degree in nursing.

“Julia was the X factor”

Way back in 8th grade Salmen was considered a rising star in Minnesota girls basketball. She had an impressive first year on the Mahtomedi varsity, quickly becoming a key piece. She played with poise and intelligence, earning the respect of her veteran teammates. That summer she played on the Minnesota Fury’s top 2020 unit.

“Julia was really the X factor for a very good team that was the number 1 seed in the section,” said former Zephyrs assistant coach Mark Hronski. “She was a premium ball handler who could distribute and score. She was coming off a full varsity season as an 8th grader and was primed to take on a huge role.”

The day was July 13, 2016 and Salmen was having a dominant summer at Mahtomedi’s team camp when it happened. “I was going up for a layup and there was contact. My right knee just dived in,” she said. What did that feel like? “It’s really painful. It feels kind of like something snaps. Your knee just kind of feels empty. I knew right away that something was wrong.”

Salmen had surgery on Aug. 3 for a torn ACL. What followed was month after excruciating month of physical therapy. “The first two months are the most frustrating. You can’t really do anything,” she said. “The simplest things are so difficult, and your knee is just throbbing the whole time and you have this big scar.” Salmen was saddled with a full-length immobilizer and a drainage tube to reduce the swelling. “That was really gross seeing all that stuff draining out of there!” she said. “It was not fun. All I wanted to do was bend my knee.”

Hronski felt terrible for Salmen, and for the squad. “It was really, really tough,” he said. “Julia is the type of teammate that everyone loves having around, and she was already developing into a leader at a young age. Losing her was a huge blow to our team. With her, Emma Grothaus, Annika Sougstad and Marisa Gustafson we thought we had a team that was a state championship contender.”

“I knew there was something wrong”

After a very long winter, Salmen returned to the court in the spring, joining the Fury’s second team for the AAU season. She gradually regained her confidence as the summer went along. Then, exactly one year to the day after the first injury, it happened again.

The Fury were facing the much-heralded Boo Williams squad in Chicago. It was a rough, physical game, one of those intense AAU battles where the officials would rather watch than whistle. Salmen elevated in a battle for the ball and made hard contact with a Boo player.

“It was like I got tackled,” Salmen said, wincing at the recollection. “She bear hugged me in mid-air and her full body weight and my full body weight landed on my left knee. I just felt it snap. I was just sitting on the ground paralyzed by fear while the game was still going on around me. I was big time in shock.”

Salmen’s Fury teammates were urging her to get up, telling her there was nothing wrong, imploring her to continue. That’s what teammates do. She did get up and finished the game. The therapist on site assured Julia that everything was fine. The team returned home, she had the knee checked out by another trainer who gave her the green light, and then played in a tournament the following weekend. “At one point I jump-stomped and my knee just kind of buckled. I was like, ‘What is happening?’” she said. “I knew there was something wrong.”

When the tournament concluded Salmen went to see the physician who had performed her first ACL surgery. The doctor is a long-time family friend who Julia had known since she was very young – someone she trusted, someone who understood ACL injuries at a level no trainer could.

“She felt my knee, did one rotation, and I felt it shift,” Salmen said. “She just looked at me and started crying. She said, ‘I am so sorry. We’ll have to do an MRI but I’m sure it’s a torn ACL.’ I just lost it,” Salmen recalled, tearing up at the most painful of memories. “Everyone said I was fine and I wasn’t fine. It was a big loss of trust. It made me realize that nobody can say I’m not going to get hurt, nobody can say that it’s not going to happen again because nobody knows. Every time you go on the court it might be the last time.”

“I thought I was done with basketball”

Instead of spending her winter in pursuit of a 3A state championship, Salmen endured the long grind of more rehab. The physical part of rebuilding a damaged knee is a struggle, but athletes say the mental aspect is often worse. “I thought I was done with basketball. I didn’t think I would ever be able to come back and compete at the level I had been competing at. I didn’t think that I was going to be the same person at all,” she said. “I had to kind of check out from the team. It hurt too much. I mean, I was there for the team, and I was very supportive on the bench, but when I went home there were so many nights when my mom would just hold me while I cried.”

Fortunately Salmen didn’t quit. Just as the indefatigable Jana Swanson of Cambridge-Isanti did after multiple ACL surgeries, Julia fought her way through the adversity and returned to the court. She finished the 2018-19 season as the leading scorer for the rebuilding Zephyrs. A 27-point game, in particular, reminded us that she could still play. “Before every game I would basically have a mini panic attack before going on the court but I kept pushing through,” she said. Early in the new year Salmen removed the bulky knee brace and her game went to another level.

In the spring, in spite of pulling off one of the most impressive comebacks we have seen, Salmen struggled to find an elite AAU team that would take her. It was incredibly frustrating after putting in so much work. Jim DeSart of the Minnesota Stars decided to take a chance on Salmen and never regretted it. “It says a lot about her as a young lady,” said DeSart. “Some players would perhaps think things just are not meant to be, even give up the sport. She did a great job not holding back when she was cleared and I am sure confidence, emotion and trust stepped to the forefront. Our team struggled with the injury bug all summer. It was one of the most difficult seasons in my 13 years with the Stars. Julia was a player who had to pick up the slack.”

Julia Salmen (left), Ella Hronski and Saley Underwood will be crucial for Mahtomedi this winter. (Photo courtesy of Breakdown Sports)

Go big or go home

Who knows what lies ahead for Mahtomedi this winter as the rebuild continues. The Zephyrs opened last season by losing seven of their first eight games and ended up with just nine wins. This year Mahtomedi has a new coaching staff and there are reasons for optimism. Currently ranked #36 in the Prep Girls Hoops Class of 2021, Ella Hronski is a scholarship-level prospect, who provides length and athleticism. Ditto for freshman Zoey Washington, who is coming off an outstanding summer. Top 100 sophomore Zoie Centers’ game has grown significantly over the past 12 months. And Mahtomedi has three seniors – Salmen and guards Aubree Cummins and Saley Underwood (#85).

However things turn out for the Zephyrs there is no doubt that Salmen is going to appreciate every minute of it. “I feel like my junior year was more of a mental journey just trying to get back into it. I think my senior year is going to be about making people remember who I was as a player,” Salmen said. “I’m just looking forward to getting back out on the court with my girls. It’s going to be so much fun. It’s going to be more about just playing the sport instead of worrying about where I am going and what I’m getting to. I mean, it’s my last year and I’ve got nothing to lose. I have already lost everything and came back from it. I might as well go big or go home!”

Top photo: Mahtomedi senior Julia Salmen overcame two ACL surgeries and is the Prep Girls Hoops Comeback Player of the Year (Photo courtesy of Press Publications)